Monday, October 13, 2008

Swing State

[This is the second in a two-part entry, so be sure to start reading here]

By our third morning in Ohio, our group of volunteers has swelled to sixteen strong. And my feet have swelled to the size of watermelons.

Seedless watermelons, but still.

Liz, our all-too-literally tireless leader, has arranged for us to spend Saturday and Sunday in Dayton, an hour or so from the motel where we've holed up in Columbus.

We are such stalwart democra-martyrs that some of us grouse we'll be wasting too much time driving back and forth when we could be registering voters. But the moment we arrive, we realize Vote Dayton is a finely oiled civic engagement machine that uses every minute wisely. We know this because Darryl, the group's leader, greets us with the key phrase: T-shirts are right over there.

Small, please I tell the volunteer at the t-shirt table. Large is the smallest we've got, he tells me. Large, please, I respond, and don the third, the ill-fittingest, and the ugliest of my new t-shirts.

Vote Dayton is a faith-based group, and leader Darryl is literally a Holy Roller, being a Methodist minister confined to a wheelchair. I can't tell whether he is more Abbot or Costello, more Laurel or Hardy, more Harold or Kumar. But soon enough we meet the Holy Roller's comedic/activist other half, Dave, a Homo-Hebraic organizer elf.

one of those Keebler characters, but with a shaved head and biceps that could bench-press Barbra Streisand.

We will start in 90 seconds, so if you have to go to the bathroom, now is the time Dave announces to the hundred-plus gathered volunteers. Apparently, no Get Out the Vote campaign can be successful unless you mobilize the bladders along with the electorate.

I use my trip to the Ladies' Room to do some across-the-stall bonding. Where are you from? I inquire to one of the other women using the facility. Boston, she reports, my nephew's bar mitzvah is next week, so I came in early to do some voter registration.

A mitzvah on the bar mitzvah! I exclamate the joy of the simcha with a resounding flush of the toilet.

As the volunteers pair up for the morning reg walk, Dave asks if any of the Oregonians want to
work with some of the Wright State students. Imagining myself mentoring a doe-eyed, eager beaver of a poli sci major, I raise my hand.

Which is how I end up spending the next two hours with Brandon, a surly white-boy freshman who is thinking of only three things:
  1. how this morning's fight with his girlfriend is going to affect his chances of getting some tonight
  2. whether his club team will win their hockey game this afternoon
  3. how much he hates his English professor, who is forcing her entire class to spend Saturday morning registering voters as part of a composition assignment
It is not my most productive shift in Ohio. I end up registering 3 voters in 2 hours. Brandon registers 1. Or at least, he has 1 filled in reg form, but I'm pretty sure he's filled it in using one of his friend's names, a fake address, and a forged signature.

I am tempted to inform him that unlike other felons, those who commit election fraud are barred forever from voting in Ohio. But since I am pretty sure he is a McCain supporter, I keep mum.

I am paired with a new partner for the afternoon shift. If there is a person less on earth like Brandon than Miss Ella, I can't imagine who it would be. A heavy set black woman, Miss Ella is a church elder in every sense of the term.

We drive to our canvassing turf in her Cadillac, which is as immaculate as the conception itself. Over gospel music that pours forth from the satellite radio like the very rivers of righteousness, she tells me about her recent trip to the Holy Land.

In Florida.

At first I think Miss Ella must be confusing the Ancient Land of the Hebrews with the Land of the Ancient Hebrews, but I quickly realize she means The Holy Land Theme Park in Orlando.

I am starting to wonder when my life turned into a Surreality TV Show.

I don't normally spend much time around Christians, living as I do in Southeast Portland, where Wiccans outnumber WASPs. And this sudden increased exposure has its effect. By the end of the afternoon, I find myself sitting in Alder's Gate Methodist Church, a staging area for Vote Dayton, experiencing a bona fide miracle.

A double chocolate shake from Graeter's.

Liz, our group leader, is passing the frozen treats around like high-calorie communion wafers. What I am sucking down is a miracle of milkfat, and over the next ninety minutes, as we race against the impending sundown, fellow Oregonian Betsy and I register more voters than any of my other teams have done all day.

At door after door, we find heartwarming stories. I don't know how much the fifty-eight year old white woman who is hooked up to an oxygen tank and confined to a wheelchair has in common with the twenty-five year old, well-tattooed (you learn these thing when people answer the door with no shirt on) black guy who lives just a few doors down. Except that neither of them is registered to vote, until I happen by.

I've never voted, the woman tells me. I always meant to, but I never did get around to it.

That's why we're here, I tell her.

And it is why we're here. This the most exhausting and energizing experience one can imagine. Kids follow us around as we go door to door, watching as we register voters and wanting to know why they can't vote, too. I ask these kids their ages, tell them when their time will come, joke that I'll come back to register them then.

It's late when we get back to Columbus. So late we dine at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe, legendary not for its cuisine but for its plethora of televisions (two per table, in some sections), all tuned to the Ohio State football game.  The staff and clientele (with the exception of our group) are all dressed in the Ohio State Red. Which goes very nicely with the pimento in the olive in my martini.

Sunday morning, we arrive early in Dayton and consign ourselves to the direction of Jess and Sam, two volunteers who have come all the way from London and are spending six weeks in Ohio to help get out the vote.

I make sure to express our national gratitude for their effort. I'm so glad we overthrew your monarchy so we could establish a true democracy, and just two and a bit centuries later, you could come show us how to make it work.

I spend my morning paired with Greg, a fifteen year-old who is too shy to knock on any doors himself.  Greg brings his own sartorial flair to the effort, sporting his Vote Dayton t-shirt between his Sunday church clothes and his hip hop hoodie.  
We make a heckuva pair on the as we knock-knock our way across the front doors of Dayton.

This is a history-making election.  Greg and I make it extra historical while we are registering some guy who had an Obama sign on his law and a framed poster of Famous Negroes Across the Ages.  

Do you know who any of those people are? I ask Greg.

He points to the person at the top left of the poster.  Is that the guy who invented peanut butter?

No, I say, it's the other guy.  Frederick Douglass.  The freed slave guy.

That's what America means to me:  Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama, George Washington Carver and hip hop hoodie Greg.

It kind of makes me miss the days when I taught African American literature.  

Especially when I realize I've spoken to more black people in the past four days than I have in the past four years.

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